Some of his best-known films include Hancock and the Pirates of the Caribbean series, and there are plenty more where that came from. When ABILITY’s Chet Cooper caught up with Martin Klebba, the popular actor was in preproduction for a new movie, in post-production for four more, and had just completed a sixth. Still, he finds time to romance his finace, ride his motorcycles and run a nonprofit foundation called Coalition for Dwarf Advocacy, which puts every dollar it receives towards helping little people.
Chet Cooper: What have you been up to?
Martin Klebba: I just finished some stunts up in Napa last week for an Adam Sandler movie. It was actually for another little person—an actress who didn’t want to do them herself. So I was actually stunt-doubling for her. Then, I’m shooting a short soon up in Portland where I play a drug dealer.
Cooper: And that wasn’t a joke when you said that, right?
Klebba: (laughs) No, a “short” is kind of like a pilot, maybe 20 or 30 minutes long. We’re gonna try to pitch it and sell it. “Get the right investors and a bigger budget and bring in some big names, juice up the plot a little bit more.”
Cooper: Do they pay you in shorts?
Klebba: You get a promise of deferred payment, so if the thing gets picked up, you either get the guarantee that you’re gonna play the part or you’ll get paid on the back end. I do a lot of these things and I get a producer’s credit as well. That way, no matter what, I’m gonna start getting some money out of it.
Cooper: Tell me about the new movie you’re doing?
Klebba: Apollo Thorne? We’re still in preproduction. From what I’ve read in the script, it’s going to be fun. Remember the movies Gremlins and Goonies?
Klebba: It’s kind of like Gremlins and Goonies meets 30 Days of Night. The story is about a father and daughter; they’re not related by blood, but their love is thicker than blood—literally. He’s overprotective and coping with his daughter becoming a woman, while she’s dealing with finding out that her father is a vampire slayer, and that she happens to be half-vampire. So what’s to become of her? How will Apollo reconcile this? Is there a cure? What powers does she possess?
All this and her father is four feet tall. There’s probably a lot you could say about Apollo’s height, but it’s a positive thing, given that he can outmaneuver anyone taller and he has the ability to fight evil no matter where it hides. I look forward to shooting it.
Cooper: Any shoot dates set yet?
Klebba: They’re thinking early 2009. The guy who wrote it is going to direct. This’ll be his third film. They want to get a big name for the vampire, too, so there’s box office draw. But I think the story’s unique in the sense that you don’t usually see a little person or somebody with a challenge get to play a role like that. That’s mainly what I do. Even in Pirates, I didn’t want to be the “dwarf pirate,” I just wanted to be a pirate who happened to be small. I mean, there are jokes that we play off of, but at the same time, I’m just as scrappy and badass as the next guy.
Cooper: Your basic bad-ass dad…
Klebba: The funny thing about my character is that he’s a high school science teacher who’s so determined to keep his daughter from dating this one boy, that he totally misses the fact that there’s a really hot librarian who’s interested in him. So he puts his energies into fending off this boy, and at the same time has to deal with his vampire nemesis of many years.
Cooper: Sounds like it could be good.
Klebba: I think so. When they came to me about it, I was like, “Let me read what you have and see.” Because you don’t want to become attached to something just to become attached to it, but I read it and I was like, “Oh, yeah, this is great!” I could go out there and do the leprechauns and the elves and the goblins, like every other little guy in Hollywood, but there’s a few out there who are doing legitimate roles, trying to be taken seriously as real actors. That’s what I’m trying to do.
Cooper: You started an organization to benefit little people.
Klebba: It originally was called the Martin Klebba Foundation, but then upon further research I found out that you have to have a board of directors to get a 501(c) tax ID, so that way everything’s on the up-and-up. I don’t want anybody thinking that any donations were going into my pocket. One hundred percent of every dollar we get from donations goes to helping little people, whether it’s little-people couples or average-sized couples looking to adopt little people children from around the world, or maybe a little person who needs some accessibility features on a car or a home.
I recently attended the national convention for little people in Detroit, which happens to be my home, so this year CoDA [Coalition for Dwarf Advocacy] did two things. We sponsored an athlete to attend the conference, paid for the hotel, the conference registration and the flight. Without our help, he wouldn’t have had the money to get there. We also gave a $5,000 scholarship to one of the applicants who’s finishing up a graduate degree.
We’re doing a fundraiser in Salt Lake City, UT, and my friend Lee Arenburg, who played Pintel in Pirates, is going to come out to do some TV and radio to promote it. We’re going to sign autographs and take pictures to raise money. I’ve got my career, and at the same time I’ve got this other thing on the side where I can help people.
Cooper: How long has CoDA been around?
Klebba: About two years. One of my great friends, Matt Roloff, who does the show Little People, Big World, is president, because he had prior experience as president of Little People of America. I’m the vice president. Sometimes I go out on movie shoots and I don’t have time to hold the reins, but he’s generally home filming the TV show and can be around a lot more than I can.
Cooper: Where does he live?
Klebba: Portland, OR, and that’s where we’ve made his office. Have you ever seen the show Little People, Big World on TLC?
Cooper: Yes I know about the show. I think they are doing well.
Klebba: They’ve done well. With a lot of additions to the house, it’s tripled in size since I visited.
Cooper: It’s filmed in his house.
Klebba: Yes. It’s about his family. He’s married to a really old friend of mine, Amy, from Michigan.
Cooper: She’s really old?
Klebba: (laughs) I’ve known her a long time. They have four kids. They’re both little people, and their first set of kids were twins. One was average height and one was small, and then there are two other kids after that, who are both average size. So you’ve got three little people in the family and three average size people.
Cooper: I always hear good things about the show.
Klebba: I’ve been on it quite a few times. The one thing little people don’t like is the “M” word, “midget.” To us it’s like calling a black person the “N” word. The show has enlightened and educated people who might not know that. Or they get some insight into what it’s like to be a little person as far as the daily routines you go, whether it’s driving or doing laundry and dealing with the counters. You go into a hotel and you see that things are really high for a little person.
Cooper: What are some of your pet peeves in the sense of universal design? Do you ever look at certain things and think, “Wow, if that was designed differently.”
Klebba: I do, and yet I’m different from a lot of other little people: I’ve always been physically able to do a lot of stuff, so if I have to get something off a counter above me, either I use a small stool or I’ll just climb up on the counter and grab it. My fiancée’s average size, and my son’s average size, so I don’t want to alter my whole house, because the resale won’t be very good unless we sell it to another little person. So, for the most part, the only thing I really can’t do is probably go on some of the bigger roller coasters.
I’d love to drive a Lamborghini, but I think it’s hard when the pedals are way down in there, and you sit real low, but I’ve come up with some pedal extensions. I actually sit in a kids’ car seat that my old boss put this beautiful leather wrap around, and it looks just like a Corvette seat that sits on top of my leather Corvette seat. It’s black and not so noticeable.
Cooper: It looks more like a jet seat?
Cooper: So with the different accommodations, it’s just been part of—
Klebba: —growing up. I played high school football. I was in the drama club. I think with challenges, you either overcome them or you fall behind and become a statistic. I don’t want to become a statistic.
Cooper: We’ve done a few articles on universal design. Sometimes I wonder if the engineers who are looking at it actually go to the different heights that are beyond the bell-shaped curve and talk with individuals who are on the extremes of the spectrum, from extremely tall, where they have issues of difficultly getting into cars… I just wonder if those designers are actually talking to humans, or if they’re just looking at measurements.
Klebba: There was a school in LA where they had the students design furniture and use the dimensions of a little person with their proportions. So these kids made chairs that were really big, so they could see what it’s like if you’re a little person. You’d have to crawl up into it and your legs would become numb, because your feet can’t touch the ground and your circulation isn’t working properly.
They made beds, exploring what it’s it like for a little person to try to get up into a bed. Do you have to have everything shortened? At my house though, I have a huge king-sized bed, and I think the top of the mattress is close to three feet high, but I like jumping up onto a bed. My chairs in my kitchen are counter height.
Cooper: And you say you take the bar stools to the bedroom and dive in?
Klebba: (laughs) Yeah! I get a running start.
Cooper: Actually, that’s a health issue, what you were talking about with circulation. You get a blood clot and—
Klebba: —you’re done with.
Cooper: So whenever you travel, you definitely need to be aware and move those legs and get them out of that position to get some circulation going.
Cooper: How often do you take your bike out?
Klebba: I don’t ride it that much any more. I mostly go out for special events, like Intel just paid my way to Vegas and I took my bike on stage, said a few things during one of their big presentations, and then turned around and rode it off stage. So that was cool. The bike has pretty much paid for itself with my personal appearances.
Cooper: Must save on gas if you only ride it on stage.
Klebba: (laughs) And it’s loud. My dad has a Harley, and it’s even louder than that, because the pipes are so short. But it’s eight feet long. It’s just as long as any stretched-out, full-sized chopper, except it’s a mini.
Johnny Depp saw the special paint job I’d done on it, and really loved the work. He said, “I want to sign it!” I was blown away. Then I had to go back and have them wet-sand the paint down so he could sign it, and then we repolished it. So now that his signature’s on there, if I lay it down or wreck it somehow—you know these California drivers—it won’t be worth much. So it’s more of a showpiece now. I don’t know if they’re gonna do any more Pirates, but I know the last time, Gore Verbinski, the director, was hoping I would drive it down the red carpet for the premiere.
Cooper: Now that it’s become too valuable to drive around, maybe you need to think about getting another bike built that you could actually use?
Klebba: Exactly. But I don’t know if my fiancée really wants me to. I’m going to be 39 years old and even my dad still says, “I don’t know about you riding a bike.” I’m like, “Dad, I’m a grown man. I’m gonna do what I want to do.” I may not ride as much, but I have an older Corvette that I speed around in sometimes. So I have enough toys to play with.
Cooper: What kind of engine is in the bike?
Klebba: It’s a 480cc Vanguard V10. It’s also automatic, which helps since, being little, having to work a clutch and shift gears would be too much to worry about in traffic. So with the automatic, I just give it gas and it shifts itself. It’ll get up to about 100 miles an hour. It moves!
Cooper: I didn’t even know that they have automatic bikes?
Klebba: Yeah, the technology is out there now.
Cooper: Riding a bike is the adventure, not necessarily shifting.
Klebba: Exactly. I have an 11-year-old son. We go up to Pismo Beach once a summer, take a couple guys and we get on those—I think they might be 250s, or some of them even 400s. We tool around on those and get crazy for about four hours. It’s fun.
When we filmed Pirates 3, we were right down the beach from where Pismo is. We had to do a lot of water scenes, like come out of the water as if we had just landed from the other side of the world. Boy, that water was cold!
Cooper: Were you also thinking: I need to go over to Pismo and take a ride?
Klebba: Exactly. “Come on, Johnny, let’s go get on some bikes!”
Cooper: Does he ride?
Klebba: I don’t know. I remember him saying something about it, but it was like two years ago. He might have a bike over in France. But don’t quote me; I’m not positive about that.
Cooper: I actually did my first fundraiser—Poker Run, do you know what they are?
Klebba: Yeah, I get a lot of people asking me to do Poker Runs, and I’m always like, “If you can set it up so I can ride and don’t have to worry about the police,” because they might just say, “Hey, your bike’s not registered,” and they’ll just take it.
Cooper: The good part about a Poker Run is there are so many bikes out there that the police, if anything, are just going to help direct traffic.
Klebba: But I’m going to stick out like a sore thumb. You never know when cops are going to get their jollies by taking your bike. One time I was on my way to film CSI, and I wasn’t wearing a seat belt in my Corvette, and I was still waiting for my sticker to come for it, and the state CHP officer said, “It’s got to be towed.”
When that tow truck shows up to tow your bike away, they’re just going to get it up there, cinch it down, and if it falls over, “It’s your fault because you shouldn’t have had it on the road in the first place.”
Cooper: I just had my Harley towed yesterday.
Klebba: Uh-oh, what happened?
Cooper: I’m not sure. It just wouldn’t start. I called AAA, luckily I have the extended membership that includes motorcycle coverage. The tow company that came out brought a bike trailer. My front wheel fit right into the rigging. I was really surprised. I think because there are so many bikes on the road, more tow companies have special bike haulers. If you have AAA get the extended membership, that way they are going to find the closest tow company that has the ability to handle street bikes.
Klebba: With gas prices the way they are, more and more people are switching to scooters. I don’t know if I’d want to be on the highway with one because there are still crazy people out there.
Cooper: Yeah, I don’t think I’d want to be on a scooter; I don’t even like taking my bike on the freeway.
Klebba: I was doing a movie up in Napa, and it’s a small town with one lane each way, and nobody on the road. To ride out there would be great. But I don’t think it’s a good idea on the 5 or the 101.
Cooper: So when you get married, are you two going to move up to Napa.
Klebba: I don’t think my career allows for that. If I was Clint Eastwood, I could live far away.
Cooper: Go to Carmel?
Klebba: That’s where he’s the mayor, right?
Cooper: That’s what I heard. At least he used to be.
Klebba: We have Schwarzenegger in Sacramento, and Eastwood in Carmel. If you’re a Republican, you’re really happy, I guess. He stopped by the set to see Adam Sandler the day I was there, up at this winery. It’s not often you get to meet the Governator.
Cooper: I rode with Robert Patrick, his nemesis in Terminator 2, on that Poker Run I was telling you about. He’s really into motorcycles! Do you know the Boozefighters Club?
Cooper: It’s the first motorcycle club in the country, started in 1946.
Cooper: In the movie The Wild Ones with Marlon Brando—
Klebba: I know the guy who actually wrote it. I don’t know if he was credited, but his name is Buck Holland. He and his sister wrote it. He’s actually in The Wild Ones. He’s now Johnny Depp’s personal driver.
Cooper: How funny. That movie was based on the Boozefighters. The name came about because these guys were just at bars getting boozed up and fighting. Anyway, Robert Patrick is the president of the LA Boozefighters Club. He’s so serious about motorcycles, that after the Poker Run, he continued on his bike and rode to Washington, DC and back.
Klebba: Wow! That’s a long drive.
Cooper: He went for the Memorial Day vets rally. So you do a lot of traveling?
Klebba: I do. As much as I like traveling, it takes up a whole day to get to the airport, fly, arrive at the next place. Then you’re in a hotel for sometimes weeks at a time by yourself, just your computer. I miss my dog.
Cooper: What kind of dog do you have?
Klebba: I’m just joking. My fiancée. Now she’ll be all mad.
Cooper: In print it’ll sound as if you really do miss your dog.
Klebba: (laughs) Yeah, my little Raider. That’s my dog, his name is Raider.
Cooper: Is it your dog or her dog?
Klebba: It’s my dog.
Cooper: But she doesn’t like the dog?
Klebba: (laughs) No, she loves the dog. She’ll just be mad that I didn’t say that I miss her.
Cooper: And you always hug the dog first when you get home?
Klebba: Of course!
Cooper: Now you’re really in the doghouse.
Klebba: (laughs) She knows I love her.
Coalition for Dwarf Advocacy